Sunday, 11 February 2001

The right to disagree

The Malta Independent on Sunday

The right to disagree

The increase in frequency with which this administration and the judiciary attempt to remove the individual`s right to disagree is disconcerting. This last month we have had at least three examples which cannot but be a symptom that this administration is losing its sense of balance and that its malaise` is infecting the judiciary.

A democracy is built on checks and balances. The government`s right to administer is not unfettered.` It has to account for its actions to` parliament where it faces a vigilant opposition ready to expose the government`s demerits and to paint itself as a real alternative to government. Out of parliament the government is subject to court rulings if it acts outside the law promulgated by parliament and in certain cases to autonomous review by the offices of the Auditor General and the Ombudsman who respond to parliament not to the government.

All these are then subject to public opinion which is primarily expressed in and influenced by the Press and the Media whose freedom is a very substantial test of a true democracy.

It was therefore wrong for one of our judges to protest against media criticism of a judgement he handed down and proceeded to warn the media to desist from such criticism.` Immaterial of whether the media criticism was justified or not, the right of the media to express concern or disagreement with court judgements is inalienable and should not be contested. At best the Judge could explain why his judgement was correct and why media criticism is unfair,` but should never seek to place himself` beyond reproach. In many cases once a Judge is comfortable with his conscience it is best to brush off criticism and move on.` God forbids the day when judges can hand down decisions without being subject to the scrutiny of public opinion.

The second case is far more serious. A newspaper editor and a columnist get summoned and investigated in the middle of the night. Their offence is` publication of` a strong article expressing belief that it is unacceptable in a truly democratic society, for a person to be held in preventive custody for more than 4 ` years without being brought to trial. That this case has connotations that could embarrass the administration makes it even more serious.

If this country has fallen into this sad level where freedom of the media is being checked through high handed methods then the arrogance of the administration has reached proportions typical of an uninterrupted third term in office which were last seen in Labour`s 1981-1987 term.` If there is anything worrying about this case it` is not that the columnist wrote as she did, but that only this` one` columnist` had the audacity to bring this point out forcefully and demand explanations; why in this case it seems the person concerned is being presumed guilty;` why this person is not being given the same treatment for pre-trial conditional freedom that is now routinely offered` to criminals with much more serious charges.

The third evidence of gross intolerance is the government`s reaction to the GWU report on the impact of the government`s plan to seek Malta`s early accession to the EU.` Without as much as discussing the contents of the report itself a barrage was opened from all fronts within government`s control or influence, including sectors of the media that claims autonomy, to insult and denigrate the GWU for reaching the conclusions it did.

These last few years we have had endless chorus of organisations that without attempting as much as a half-baked study` have been lauding government`s intentions to seek early membership. They have never been as much as half-censored.

But if the GWU`s conclusions from the Report criticises the government`s stand and leans` more towards` the opposition`s` project of a special relationship, which does not exclude membership in the fullness of time when Malta is prepared for it,` all hell breaks loose.`

The GWU` report has a very solid story to tell even though one may criticise it for evident gaps regarding impact of EU membership on taxation, cost of living,` service sector and a comparative study of how the special relationship is superior to membership.` The GWU report focuses almost exclusively on the fact that government has not restructured the economy, has no serious plans to do so, and is relying solely on the EU to force on us its own style of re-structuring. This may be likened to performing keyhole surgery with` a butcher`s knife.

In its conclusion the GWU report is much in line with a book I published in 1999 where I maintained that economic re-structuring and EU membership should be handled in series and not in parallel. Otherwise in the electorate`s mind the pain of the former will be pinned on the latter and support for EU membership will be missing when most needed i.e. in a referendum.

The government is free to disagree with this simple logic but only if it wants to persist on the illogic of self-destruction by insisting that the country faces such irreversible decision as EU membership when it is split on it right down the middle.

If the answer to such logic is the arrogance of denigrating one`s opponents than the road to self-destruction could be shorter than I would have imagined a few weeks back.

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